In a previous column, I shared some research that showed a strong correlation between forage quality and antler size. Quality forage requires quality soil. Does this mean big antlers can only be produced in areas where great soils already exist, such as in the prairie or large river deltas?
My farm is a great example of improving very low-quality soil and producing better crops and larger-antlered bucks. My wife and I purchased a highly eroded and very rocky piece of land in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri 12 years ago. There literally wasn’t any topsoil. In fact, the “fields” were actually a solid coverage of rocks, from baseball to gravel size. I knew I had to produce better food crops to grow bigger deer.
The Power of Poop
Given the rocky conditions, I didn’t disk the fields as part of preparing to plant. In fact, I have never disked the fields at my farm. I simply used mowing and/or herbicide to kill existing weeds, fertilized the soil, and then rented a no-till drill to plant the seed.
Based on a soil test, I knew I needed to add nutrients to the soil; I needed to lime and fertilize. Plants are nutrient transfer agents. They collect nutrients from the soil and air and make them available in a form critters can consume and digest.
I purchased fertilizer from a local farm store and was very excited to see the fertilizer truck spreading the first load. I was shocked when about halfway through the first plot the truck left the field. The driver informed me the land was too rough for his equipment and promptly drove off with most of the load of fertilizer still in his truck.
Not one to quit, I went that day to a local equipment dealer to rent or purchase a fertilizer spreader buggy. The salesman could tell I was upset and asked me why. I explained and he laughed. He said his Uncle Galen was crazy and would spread composted poultry litter (chicken poop) on my steep hills!
I had heard of compost during college but didn’t have any firsthand experience with using it as fertilizer. I met with Galen, struck a deal and went home to prepare my wife for the ranch to smell like chicken poop for a few weeks. However, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that properly composted poultry poop smells like rich soil — not the downwind side of a chicken farm.
I also wrongly assumed that two tons of composted poultry litter spread per acre would be visually noticeable. In fact, I would have thought Galen ripped me off had I not watched it being applied. After being spread, it appeared to be a small amount of compost. I didn’t see how it would yield the results Galen described.
I rented a no-till drill from the county and started planting seed. I admit I didn’t have very high expectations. This was because I was only taught about standard fertilizer in college. We studied nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (essential components for forage growth).
I understood that the compost, or at least this variety of compost, was loaded with microbes (bacteria, etc.). The bacteria added to the compost are the same families of bacteria found in rich prairie soils. The bacteria have the ability to use existing nutrients in the ground and air and make them available to plants. The compost certainly has nutrients for plants. However, just as importantly the compost feeds the microbes!
Seeing Is Believing
Reading about compost is one thing. Watching the results is another. I was shocked during the early years of using composted poultry litter at the amount of corn, forage soybeans and clover produced at my rock pile (farm).
To understand just how impressive this is, it’s important to know that there isn’t a combine, grain silo or row crop field for many miles from my farm. My friends were amazed at the crops produced in my food plots. I was literally producing great corn and soybean crops! However, my goal wasn’t simply good food plots. My goal was to improve the quality of deer and turkeys on my farm.
As I produced better food crops, the farm produced more and better quality bucks! I remember the first 10-pointer I caught on a trail camera. I remember the first 140-, 150- and even 160-inch buck harvested at my farm or adjoining properties. And I also remember the first 170-inch buck that was tagged by a neighbor. That just happened last year.
My farm is only one example. Next month, I’ll share a great example on a much larger scale! You don’t have to hunt in the ag belt to have a chance to tag large-antlered bucks, but you do need to make sure they have good groceries for several generations.